GCL Braves Season Preview

The Gulf Coast League Braves start the 2006 season this afternoon down in the hot Florida sun. The Braves Show's Bill Shanks previews this year's rookie league team, which as always should be stacked with solid pitching.

STARTING PITCHERS

Just like in Danville, the Gulf Coast League Braves will use ten pitchers in a piggyback situation, with seven others working out of the bullpen. The piggybacks are lined up like this: Raul Gonzalez and Jose Ortegano, Neftali Feliz and Cory Rasmus, Edgar Osuna and Steve Evarts, Yeliar Castro and Chad Rogers, and Steve Kent and Jeff Locke.

Gonzalez will be the right-handed part of the first piggyback group. He‘s a six-foot-two, 165-pounder from Panama that will turn 21 in three weeks. Gonzalez did well in limited action last season for the Dominican Summer League (DSL) team, posting a 3.06 ERA in six games. He missed all of 2004 with arm trouble, so this will be his first full season back from skipping an entire season.

The baby-faced Ortegano wowed veteran catchers in spring training with an unbelievable changeup. The Venezuelan lefty is still only eighteen, but he's got some impressive stuff for a young kid. His first two seasons in the DSL were a success, striking out 101 in 91.2 innings of work.

Feliz got raves back in spring training for his improved stuff. He's a lanky kid that hasn't even started to fill out his six-foot-three frame, but Feliz's stuff is really good. He was a bit wild last year in the DSL, but the hope is for that to improve this summer.

Rasmus is a hard-throwing right-hander drafted in the supplemental first round of the draft a few weeks ago. The Russell County star from Alabama has been compared to Kyle Davies, Jason Marquis, and even Chad Billingsley.

Osuna was the DSL1 club‘s Most Valuable Pitcher last year, after going 3-1 in 13 games (8 starts) and posting a 0.94 ERA. He struck out 57 and walked only 7 n 47.2 innings of work. The Braves can‘t wait to see how the six-foot-one Mexican lefty does here in the states.

Evarts is a kid with a Steve Avery-like body, along with an excellent changeup. Evarts was the Braves second supplemental first rounder, and the team really thinks he projects well over the next few years.

Castro has a lightning arm. The ball just flies out of his arm, and he's already got a good hook. Castro is out of Panama, and at eighteen has time to add to his six-foot-three, 180-pound frame.

Rogers is a kid the Braves' draft room prayed for. He never lost a game in high school, and this organization loves winners. Rogers joins Evarts and Locke as three solid long-term left-handed pitching prospects for the Braves.

Kent is making his American baseball debut after pitching in his native Australia last summer. The lefty just turned 17 last month, and for his age has shown unbelievable stuff. He's got a fastball, curve, and changeup, with the curve as an advanced pitch for his age. Here's a kid that would be a rising senior in high school, but instead will be on his first start up the minor league ladder.

Locke is another power arm, but since he's from New Hampshire, his arm is a bit fresher. Kids up north just aren't able to throw as much as the kids in the south. Sometimes their seasons don't start until late March or early April. So the Braves believe the left-hander is only going to get better.

Steve Figueroa, who will begin the season on the disabled list with mononucleosis, has been compared to a young Bartolo Colon, before he got a bit chunky. He's got a large frame that the Braves feel will help him be a power pitcher. Not sure whether he'll be a starter or reliever down the road, but he'll be given adequate innings in the GCL once he gets on the roster.


BULLPEN

The GCL bullpen will consist of five right-handers: Casey Beck, Mike Mehlich, Joe Johnson, Ysidro Garcia, and Junior Guerra, along with lefties Kyle Warren and Derrick Himpsl.

Beck was a successful reliever at San Jacinto Junior College in Texas. He might be moved up to Danville when there's room. But for now he‘ll get the majority of save opportunities in the GCL.

Mehlich is an impressive athlete, who was a football star at Bishop Moore High School. He really hasn't even started to learn how to pitch yet, evidenced by only throwing from the stretch. But now his tutorial begins. The Braves got a steal by plucking Mehlich in the 11th round, who was projected much higher. He might show teams in the GCL that the Braves lucked out, once again.

Johnson was the Braves 13th round pick earlier this month out of Louisburg College. He was a closer in college, and the Braves will probably give him a few opportunities to do the same thing as he starts his pro career.

Garcia is a six-foot Dominican right-hander with electric stuff. He signed back in December, and just turned 19 last month.

Yes, this is the same Junior Guerra that was a catcher in the Braves‘ organization up until about a month ago. He was interested in becoming a pitcher, and after a rough start with the bat in Rome, the Braves made the move with him. He‘s already been clocked at 95 mph, along with a plus breaking ball. So this might be the most interesting pitcher to watch this season.

Warren pitched ten games in the GCL last year and struggled, posting a 7.62 ERA with 9 walks in 13 innings. Being a lefty, he‘s going to get another chance.

Himpsl was a draft-and-follow signee from last month. He's got a blazing fastball, but his control has been horrible. The Braves thought his mid-90s fastball was worth the risk, so now they've got to take this hard thrower and make him a pitcher.


CATCHERS

Javier Dominguez and Steven "Bubba" Garcia will get the majority of playing time behind the plate. Dominguez is drawing rave reviews from the staff. He's a switch-hitting, six-foot-one receiver who will turn 21 next month; Javier's spent the past four years on our Dominican Summer League teams.

Garcia, a 19-year-old right-handed hitter, was the Braves' ninth round pick in the 2005 draft. He'll be returning to the GCL, where he got 52 at bats last summer.

Victor Hernandez and Brian Ward will be the primary backups. Like Dominguez, Hernandez has been on the DSL teams the last four years, while Ward is a free agent signee.


FIRST BASE

The Braves have moved a couple of outfielders to first base to give them a shot at the position. Adam Parliament, the 26th round pick in 2004 will get the majority of at bats there. The rangy right-handed hitter played in 46 games as an outfielder last year in the GCL. He's got good power, but must cut down on his strikeouts. He had four home runs but 44 strikeouts last season in 157 at bats.

Jorge Casso, another right-handed hitter, will also see time at first. He's a 22-year-old Dominican that hit .302 last year in the DSL as an outfielder.


SECOND BASE

Yoel Campusano, signed by the Braves last November, will be the starting second baseman for the GCL Braves. This is the kid often compared to a young Adrian Beltre by the Braves' scouts, and while he'll start out at second, he could move to third down the road. Campusano is only nineteen, and the Braves love his potential.


SHORTSTOP

Delvis Rivadeneira and Tony De La Cruz will split time at shortstop in Orlando. Rivadeneira is a 20-year-old switch-hitter who had a .285 career average in three DSL seasons. De La Cruz is a speedster who stole 29 bases in 92 games the last two seasons in the DSL.


THIRD BASE

Adam Coe, this year's seventh round pick, will be the starting third baseman. Coe had a fantastic senior season at Russell County High School in Alabama. He's built similar to Jeff Bagwell, and the Braves would love it if he can become anything close to the Astros' star. He could lead the GCL team in homers at the end of the season.


OUTFIELD

The Braves' first round pick two weeks ago, Cody Johnson, will be the cornerstone of the GCL outfield. While some analysts questioned the Braves' selection of Johnson that high in the first round, the organization is convinced they have a future power hitter in the left-handed hitter. It'll be interesting to see how well he does this summer.

The Braves are anxious to see Nate Weidenaar in action. He was drafted in the 48th round of the 2005 draft, but signed too late in the summer to play in games. Weidenaar has had a very solid Extended Spring Training.

Eliazar Carmona, a Dominican speedster, will probably play centerfield a bit. He had 25 stolen bases in 94 games over the last two years in the DSL. Japanese outfielder Takumi Hamaoka will see his first games in the Braves' farm system. Hamaoka played last year in the Australian League after signing in December of 2004. The left-handed hitter is still just 19 years old, and the Braves can't wait to see how he does in the GCL.

Trevion Griffin, the Braves' 29th rounder in 2004 signed a year ago as a draft and follow, has been cleared to play after having knee surgery earlier in the spring. Griffin hit only .162 last summer in the GCL in 99 at bats. Rubi Koko is back in the GCL after going back to the Dominican in 2004. The lanky outfielder is very raw, but when he hits it and makes contact, the ball goes a long way. The trouble is making contact. He has struck out in more than half of his minor league at bats.


***


There will be several things to look for this year with the Gulf Coast League Braves. First and foremost, the pitching. It'll be fun to watch how all the young pitchers from this year's draft do, along with the Latin pitchers that the Braves have high hopes for. Plus, with Cody Johnson and Adam Coe, there's two high draft picks with excellent offensive potential on the roster that will be watched closely.

But the pitching, as always, will be the key.


Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.


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